Official Opening of the National Schools Constitutional Convention

Speech
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

Thank you John [Warhurst] for that kind introduction, it’s fair to say that as politicians we don’t always receive kind introductions. I’ll add that applauding at the start of the speech is a sign of hope, because you haven’t heard what I had to say yet.

Crystal, the student delegates from around Australia, the teachers that support this and the organisers, welcome to Canberra, welcome to the Museum of Democracy and most notably this chamber which has been at the centre of so many of our national debates.

For 61 years from 1927 to 1988 this chamber, the benches you’re sitting on, those dispatch boxes, they have seen some of the most momentous debates. The commencement of WWII, debate over the Cold War, the dismissal of Gough Whitlam, they were all debated in this chamber.

But you are here to discuss our Constitution, the document which governs how this happens. And I am one of those who find this exciting. and if you find it exciting, I am very happy for you because I believe our constitution is one of the great documents of liberal democracy.

Too often it is disparaged by those who oppose the structure it created or those who have disdain for democratic and federal elements it creates and establishes.
The Constitution has instituted a polity that is one of the oldest continuous democracies on Earth, right here in Australia.

But democracy in Australia didn’t just begin with the Constitution.

It existed in the colonies prior to the nation’s formation, to a degree unprecedented in comparable nations, even unprecedented only 100 years earlier when the Americans revolted because they didn’t have some of the rights that Victorians, New South Welshmen, Queenslanders and others could take for granted in the nineteenth century.

Democracy in most of our colonies was more advanced at that time than it was even in the United Kingdom.

The ballot was granted to all men earlier in Australia; it was granted to women in South Australia, before all but one nation on Earth. The secret ballot, so important to our modern democracy, was conceived in Melbourne and perfected in South Australia.

The Constitution was drafted and finalised by delegates elected from from the colonies in popular ballots and then accrued approved by the people at referenda before its formal adoption and enactment through the Westminster Parliament.

No constitution of that era can claim such a mandate, not even the famed American Constitution about which we hear so much - which was never directly approved by the people and not drafted by people directly elected by them either.

The Constitution, particularly in this place, has come in for some criticism over the years. That it was approved by a restricted franchise, and it was; that not everyone had the ballot, but by world standards it was very wide – and one of the first acts of the new Parliament was to widen it further to include all women.

Yet in that same Act of Parliament, that granted women the vote, it also took it away from our indigenous people that had it in three of the six colonies at that particular time.

So it’s not perfect, but too often actions of politicians get blamed on the Constitution. And I urge you to consider that when we look at the imperfections of our constitution – look at the actions of the politicians.

Too often the Constitution is blamed for our failures as politicians as we seek to stay in government.

So to come to the theme of your convention, federalism.

Federalism is at the very core of the Constitution. While some debates more recently focus on the constitutional monarchy element of the Constitution, it is federalism that took up all that time of the delegates drafting it, and it is into federalism that goes into great detail: the creation of the nation from six colonies, when there was aspiration and hope those six colonies would retain some independent sovereignty.

From the financial balance between the new national government and colonies which would become states; to the provisions learnt from the US Civil War that clarified central power and supremacy, preventing the state government from gathering militias and giving the Commonwealth control over its own elections; to the establishment and protection of key federal institutions such as the High Court and the Senate; and to what I believe is the single greatest element in our constitution, its unique referendum procedure that ensures only the people voting across Australia can implement any change.

When critics have disdain for democracy, about our constitution, it seems to be that this is the most common element criticized: that it’s hard to change.

But I’ve always failed to be convinced by the argument that it’s a problem with the process, when the people actually vote not to change it themselves.

I note the title of your deliberations is “States Rights and National Priorities,” focusing on health and education, but, and I say this because I urge you to consider federalism in a slightly different way than it has often been considered in this place. Consider federalism as a means to protect your rights as citizens, as individuals.

The fathers of modern federalism were Americans, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

They saw federalism not just as a convenience, as a way of tying different colonies together, but as a way to limit the power of government.

To those of us who see government not only as a means to enact policies for the common good but also as a potential threat to our individual freedoms, this is a critical aspect of federalism.

States don’t have rights, but citizens do, and while we don’t often talk about them, there are some notable examples in our own history, issues debated in this very chamber, that illustrate the protections that federalism has provided to Australians.

In the late 1940s, the Chifley Labor Government sought to nationalise certain industries, in particular banks and airlines. It may be hard to conceive now, but this Parliament tried to ban private banks and force everyone to hand their money over to a government bank.

This represented a profound change in the private enterprise economy of Australia. The laws to do this were then overturned by the High Court when it held that Parliament did not have the power to do that.

Now, there was a path open to the government at the time to amend the Constitution to give it this power, but it lost the next election, mainly on that issue, in 1949.

Only two years later, the Menzies Liberal-led Coalition Government attempted to ban the Communist Party. The law was passed by both houses of this Parliament, in this building, but again the High Court said the Parliament did not have the power to pass such a law and threw out the act.

On this occasion the Menzies government did put the issue to a referendum, it did ask the people for the power under the Constitution, to ban the Communist Party. But at that referendum, the people voted no, and so the issue died, and you never had a political party banned in such a way in Australia. At the time, interestingly while they voted against the referendum put up by the government, they actually re-elected that same government.

Just over 20 years ago, just after the Parliament moved out of this building, the Labor Government then tried to ban election advertising, and the High Court rejected this attempt at an attack on free speech, as is critical to our democracy.

These are examples of how federalism has protected our rights as individuals by having a national Parliament with limited powers.

As you discuss and debate States’ rights and national priorities, some of these examples are worth considering. Limits on the power of Parliament, government and politicians, can be important protections for Australians.

When it comes to the topics you are specifically considering in health and water, I urge you to also consider the benefits of diversity.

I am not always convinced that there shouldn’t be different rules in different parts of Australia for particular issues. After all, my home city of Melbourne has very different needs and interests to the township of Mildura, the township of Mount Isa or Maryborough.

Don’t assume all wisdom necessarily resides in the National Parliament, simply because we are the National Parliament.

Why should the suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney, where the great bulk of our population reside, make decisions for regional Queensland, just because we think it best, even though we have no experience of other places, but simply because we have the bulk of numbers in a democracy?

So enjoy the debates over the coming days over these policy areas you discussed, but the very architecture of our polity is critical.

The Constitution belongs to all Australians. I look forward to hearing about debates and seeing your final communique. It gives me great pleasure to declare this 19th National Schools Constitutional Convention open.

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